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'Special problems here:' Hatch talks Utah's dire suicide rate, lauds state hotline

SALT LAKE CITY — After trying and failing to take his own life on Oct. 31, 2012, Dave Richards looked up a crisis hotline and laid his eyes on the sequence of numbers that would set him on a new path forever.

"It's 801-587-3000," Richards said. "I'll remember it till the day I die, I promise."

Richards was on the University of Utah campus telling U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch about the number for the 24/7 CrisisLine call center at the University Neuropsychiatric Institute, which Hatch toured Thursday to ask questions about the services there.

Richards, who lives with bipolar disorder, was at his lowest point following a bout of severe depression. But his simple phone call gave him the hope he needed to deal with his mental illness.

"The worker who answered the phone that night saved my life," he said. "They installed one thought in me and that was hope. ... I am by no means cured, but I am still alive and I am very happy for that."

Richards was one of several people to tout the accomplishments of the hotline to Hatch, who with other federal lawmakers formally introduced a bill last month that would create a unified, three-digit hotline — as easily memorable as 911 — dedicated for the purpose of suicide prevention and the handling of mental health crises.

While Richards maintained the presence of mind to find the 10-digit number that ultimately saved his life, Hatch said Thursday that he is worried that others going through similar crises may not find themselves able to do so.

"Let me tell you, a suicide (prevention) number that is very easy to remember and is very easy to dial is crucial," Hatch told reporters from Deseret News and KSL, who exclusively accompanied the Republican lawmaker on his tour.

Hatch has a supportive audience with the call center crisis workers, who have the solemn task of speaking with callers in the lowest moments of their lives. The Utah Department of Human Services and University Neuropsychiatric Institute have come out in support of Hatch's bill, which has also received the vocal support of Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, among others.

"When people are in crisis, they aren't thinking clearly," said Amber Montero, who has worked at the CrisisLine center for six years.

Montero has seen the use of statewide crisis resources housed at the U. "definitely increase in volume" during her time there, and her conviction that they make a difference is as strong as ever.

"I know there's hope to get people out of these (dark) places," she said. "It saves lives."

Hatch said the institute is ahead of the curve in its efforts to make mental health crisis resources as accessible as possible. His bill would also promote crisis intervention research, he said.

"We want to provide federal funds for continuing research in this area (to the) National Institutes of Health and also help the states in these areas where they're doing so much good research and development," Hatch said. "And the University of Utah is right at the forefront, so I want to give them a lot of credit for what they've done."

The U. can't afford not to be at the forefront, the senator added, because of Utah's troubling suicide rate.

"We do have special problems here. ... I suspect that there may be all kinds of reasons for that. We've got to find out what those reasons are and get rid of them," Hatch said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data released last year, 630 Utahns died from suicide in 2015, giving the state the fifth-highest suicide rate nationwide.

The teenage suicide rate in Utah is also among the highest in the United States each year. Suicide has been the leading cause of death for Utahns between the ages of 10 and 17 since 2013, and the teen suicide rate has nearly tripled since 2007, according to the Utah Department of Health.

It's with statistics like that in mind that Hatch says he is pushing his bill, which would formally require that the Federal Communications Commission "study the feasibility of designating" a uniform, three-digit hotline nationwide dedicated to suicide prevention and mental health crises.

The bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on May 3. Stewart has also introduced the bill in the House of Representatives.

The SafeUT app

On a busy day, workers at the University Neuropsychiatric Institute receive up 300 calls, said Don Fennimore, supervisor of the institute's mobile crisis outreach teams. Fennimore said the mobile teams, who use unmarked cars and can conduct visits with more consideration for privacy than a paramedic in an ambulance, make anywhere from three to 20 visits each day to callers who request in-person intervention.

That's on top of the influx of users who now message the center using the SafeUT app — a crisis intervention tool marketed specifically toward teenagers, but also used by others. Call center workers, all of whom have the requisite social work training, frequently engage in several conversations per day with SafeUT app users.

Montero said she and others "will spend hours building that rapport" with teens who report concerns about themselves or their friends via SafeUT.

"It is a place where kids can say things that they won't say anywhere else," she said, adding that she can think of several incidents of school violence that were prevented because of someone using the app.

The tool is being introduced through school districts, having reached about 85 percent of teenagers in Utah so far. Awareness efforts at those districts appear to be working, according to Montero.

"I think a lot of it has to do with (heightened) awareness of not only the service, but of mental health issues," she said.

Heidi Swapp, a Herriman mother whose son Cory, 16, was lost to suicide two years ago, agrees that awareness about resources is everything. When her son was in his last moments of crisis, Swapp said, she was at a loss about where to turn.

Swapp said she now realizes her son needed a professional in that moment, despite his having received counseling shortly before he took his own life.

"I was the one on the other end of the phone. I didn't know what to say because I'm not trained," Swapp said emotionally, getting comforting pats on the back from Hatch. "I didn't know (what to do). I didn't know."

Swapp, a popular crafts icon in Utah, has used her platform to talk about her family's experience with suicide. During Thursday's event with Hatch, she said she was impressed by the capabilities of the SafeUT app.

"That's really amazing, because that's the way (teenagers) talk," she said.

Hatch echoed Swapp's thoughts, saying it's critical for as many people as possible to not only have quick access to the state's crisis line — but to know that it and its related resources exist in the first place. He added that "if I had this problem, I would be wondering what to do."

"We've got to get this information out ... and we need to do a better job of communicating to citizens," Hatch said. "I think it's terrific what you're doing. And you're still, in my eyes, on the cusp of breaking through. ... It was really good for me to be here today."

Richards, who got inpatient care at the University Neuropsychiatric Institute for 10 days following his brush with death, also has a close friend who was lost to suicide. He knows that not everybody can be saved from taking their own life — "there's simply no getting around it," he says.

But for those whom it does save, he told institute administrators, it gives them a second opportunity at life.

"The message you guys have to give is hope."

Contributing: Ashley Moser